If the vegetable kingdom was actually a kingdom, which vegetable do you suppose would be the king? If you answered ‘artichoke’ or ‘asparagus’ or any other exotic vegetable, then I would have to disagree with you. I think the answer is clear. The potato is the king of vegetables. This is a case I am prepared to fight to the end. And my reasons for backing the humble tuber’s nomination are easy to set out.
First of all, there is the potato’s versatility. How many vegetables can you think of that can be eaten in any shape or at any consistency? You can boil or bake a potato whole and enjoy its flavour. You can cut it into little pieces and make a sabzi with it. You can slice it thinly and get delicious potato crisps from it. Or you can abandon the shape entirely and pulverise the potato to nothingness. Even then, as a mashed potato, it makes for a classic dish.
You can also cook the potato any way you like. You can boil it, roast it, bake it, fry it or cook it in a sabzi and it will still taste as good. I am hard-pressed to think of a single vegetable that can be cooked in so many different ways and still give up none of its delicious characteristics.
Apart from versatility, there is also the remarkable speed of the potato’s rise. As is well-known, the potato was virtually unknown in most of the world till the Spanish brought it back from South America. Though it reached England in the 16th century, it took another two centuries to become widely available throughout Europe.
Once that happened, there was no stopping the potato. For instance, the French revolution was accompanied by another revolution – the introduction of the potato into French cuisine – that was almost as far-reaching in its consequences. Paris went so berserk over potato dishes that the royal Tuileries Garden was transformed into a potato field in the centre of Paris. In Ireland, the potato became such a staple that when a fungus wiped out the crop in the 1840s, the population starved and millions died (or went off to America).
To have some sense of how quickly the potato has spread throughout the world, consider the rise of the potato in India. It was brought here by the British (though some claims have been advanced for the Dutch) and you would have thought that Indians might have regarded it as an alien vegetable. Instead, we took to the potato with a rare enthusiasm and within a century of its widespread cultivation, it had become an integral part of the Indian diet.
The next time you sit down to a plate of puri aloo or eat an aloo parantha or bite into an aloo samosa, consider what would have happened if the British had not taken it upon themselves to cultivate the potato in India. Perhaps these dishes would have evolved anyhow as the potato made its way to our country through trade but I doubt very much if potatoes would have become as central to our cuisine as they are today. Even the south, which prides itself on its vegetable tradition, has to come to terms with the fact that the single most popular south Indian dish in the world – the masala dosa – is made with potatoes.
Another reason I advance for the potato’s claim to be the king of vegetables is its international popularity. No other vegetable crops up in so many different cuisines. Forget about the cuisines of South America where the potato was first grown, but consider the cuisines of Europe. The Italians will use the potato for gnocchi. A Spanish omelette is essentially an omelette with potatoes. The British national dish of fish and chips requires potatoes. The Germans subsist on meat and potatoes. The Swiss national dish is potato rösti.
In the United States, the French fry is so ubiquitous that it may well be the national dish of America. In Mediterranean cuisines, fried potatoes are a popular starter (as they are in many Arab countries). And of course, south Asia loves its potatoes.
I used to be told by the potato’s detractors that my claims for its supremacy would forever be punctured by the failure of east Asia to embrace the potato. How can it be the king of vegetables, the sceptics would ask, if a billion Chinese refuse to eat it?
In the last decade, I have found the answer. Go to any Far Eastern city of your choosing and check out what the locals are doing for fast food. Almost without exception, they are queuing up at Burger King or McDonalds or KFC for an order of French fries. It may not be a part of the local cuisine, but the potato now rules all over east Asia as well.
Then, there is the unique ability of the potato to work equally well as haute cuisine dish or as a poor man’s subsistence food. It does not cost much to make a simple aloo ki sabzi and indeed in many societies (most notably, Ireland and England in the 19th century) the poor have survived on a diet of potatoes. Even today, the potato is an integral part of cheap office lunches either as a French fry or as the filling in a masala dosa.
But the potato can also be a rich man’s food. One of the best ways to enjoy good caviar is to hollow out a boiled potato, squeeze in a dollop of sour cream and then ladle on the Beluga. Similarly, potatoes and truffles have a sacred connection. Grate white truffles over potatoes (ideally, buttery mashed potatoes) and the two flavours will combine in a joyous union.
The French have always recognised the potato’s ability to be a part of haute cuisine, which is why so many of their recipes combine potatoes with butter and cream. The great French chef Joel Robuchon (generally considered one of the world’s two greatest chefs – the other is Alain Ducasse) created a mashed potato that is now so famous and influential that it is rare to find a chef at a good restaurant anywhere in the world who does not borrow some element of Robuchon’s recipe.
The secret of Robuchon’s mashed potatoes is dairy. Basically, he adds a lot of butter and hot milk (some chefs use cream) to mashed potatoes and keeps sieving the potatoes again and again till he gets a perfect silky texture. Because he uses strongly-flavoured potatoes, the dairy products do not detract from the basic potato taste but actually enhance it. I’ve read interviews where Robuchon claims that guests at his restaurants often ask for a portion of mashed potatoes instead of dessert (God knows, they are richer than most desserts).
It is somehow typical of the potato that even a great chef like Robuchon who has created a gourmet classic like his buttery mashed potato should concede that the greater challenge is to make an excellent French fry. Most of us are used to the fast food French fry (and very good it is too, these days, thanks to the companies that supply the fries to fast food chains) but the Robuchon French fry is in a league by itself. The secret lies in frying the potatoes twice. The first frying cooks the potato while the second frying gives it the texture: crisp on the outside and soft inside.
Of late, I find myself eating more and more potatoes. Partly, this is because of the vast variety of frozen potato dishes that are now available in the Indian market, thanks to such companies as Lamb Weston and McCain. It takes only a few minutes to cook a Lamb Weston hash brown in the oven and because no frying is involved, the dish is healthier than it tastes. Similarly, a McCain aloo tikki can be pan-fried in a minimum of oil and still tastes delicious. If the potato has a problem then it comes from the health fanatics who keep telling us that the potato is the unhealthiest vegetable of all. This is nonsense. Potatoes contain important minerals and nutrients and are actually good for you. The problem is not with the potato itself. It is with the deep frying techniques that are used in many potato dishes.
Fortunately, the new generation of potato products more or less eliminate the need for deep-frying. And yes, even when potatoes are fried, they still contain less calories than many oily Indian snacks (the pakora, in particular, is a serial offender).
So, here’s my recommendation. Forget about the health fanatics. Eat your potatoes in moderation. Take a crisp French fry and dunk it in ketchup. Bite into a Kettle chip and feel its texture crumble on your tongue. Dip your puri into an aloo sabzi. Munch away at the boiled potatoes that are an integral part of bhel puri. And as a special treat, smear a little home-made achar on an aloo parantha and feel the tastes of the Indian street fill your mouth.
When you eat a potato, you never dine alone. You eat with the king of vegetables.
- From HT Brunch, January 30
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch